Welcome to Fiction Friday, when I attempt to force myself to finish my novel, by exposing you to one chapter a week. Hopefully, you’ll help inspire me to get the remaining chapters finished. Be aware that it’s aimed at the 11 – 13 crowd and that it’s only had a single edit. I was afraid of getting trapped in endlessly re-writing the first chapters, and wanted a completed work before I went back to edit. So you’re getting my juvenile prose raw.
In the chill of the early morning, the four walked through the city gates and into the darkness that surrounded the city. Although Alex had always wondered about the world about the city, he had not left it since he had traveled from his native village, a bond‑servant to Balock. He had no money, and no personal effects save the red mage’s robes he wore. He recalled the events that had occurred on the day following his return from the library of Potius Potankus.
Alex had returned with a few notes from an incomplete Vendyi lexicon when the gong sounded for evenmeal. He tucked his notes away and headed for his place at the high table in the dining hall. The high table was placed on a raised dias at the back of the hall. From there, honored guests and privileged residents were provided with a view of the entire hall and any entertainment that there might be provided. A place at the high table was a great honor in most households. Here it meant that one was that much closer to Balock. Sitting there, Alex’s thoughts alternated between the poor but edible fare that Balock was wont to feed his students, and the information he had gleaned from Potius’ extensive collection.
The sigils on the Levitation Ball, as he had feared, were very similar to the ones on Helenea’s punch‑dagger. In the Vendyi lexicon he had located nearly identical characters among the sect’s sacred alphabets. This put far too much into focus for Alex. He dared, for the first time in his life, to truly examine the training he had received under Master Balock. The many years of study and training had yielded no effective results. He could gather and transfer chelar without difficulty, but beyond that he was a complete failure as a magician. Could this failure be Balock’s, rather than his own? The concept chilled his to his core. Alex resolved to occupy his mind with other things until he could examine the runic carvings on the Levitation Ball again. Without effort, he brought the image of Kelendora at the water trough to mind.
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Late that night, as the city gate guards called the beginning of midwatch, Alex silently took up a shielded lamp and padded out into the courtyard, not even pausing for his wand. With his fingertips he carefully traced out the runes he had stared at for so many years. With the lexical notes at his side, he began to translate them. Here was the sigil of Darkness. Next to it was inscribed the sigil of Binding. The next two were missing from Alex’s notes, but the one after them was the sigil of Emptiness. With growing rage, Alex traced out the rest of the runes. The case against his Master grew by leaps and bounds as he found the sigils for Imprisonment, and the Void. Alex spat. Under his breath he muttered, “the bastard made a magic‑sinkhole. This thing is nothing but a vast flask for holding chelar. Every scrap of chelar I have gathered for the past seven years, all my sweat, all my effort, for this. No wonder I’ve never seen anyone lift this thing. No one could have! All it does it eat chelar.” He spat again. “If that bastard thinks he will use me as a sacrificial lamb, he had better think again.”
Alex turned to leave the school gates when a wayward thought struck him. “Balock owns everything inside these gates, even the clothes I’m wearing. According to the rules of indenture, his lies nullify our contract, and my oath. Even so, he owes me nothing.”
After a few moments, another thought crossed his mind, and a smile traced over his lips. According to the laws of the Mage’s Guild, his chelar was rightfully his…
The young mage dug a piece of chalk from his belt pouch and began to inscribe the meditation stone. He began with a standard Demonologist’s pentagram. Over this he inscribed the four‑pointed star of the Elements, invoking the Fire of the Earth, the Air above, the Earth Below, and the Water that Runs Between them. He added the opposing symbols of Male and Female, to include the Tantric Magics, and then went on to invoke the remaining nine disciplines, all of which drew their chelar from different places. All of these inscriptions had been taught to him by his master, but he was planning on using them in a most unconventional way. Ceremonial magic operated by different rules than the mind‑magics he usually worked with, and its formality made it more reliable and less dependent on his own talents.
He seated himself just inside the well‑marked Pentagram and composed his thoughts. Moving his left hand into the Rea position, he brought his right into direct contact with the surface of the sphere. As he began to intone the syllables of the Great Transfer, the inner structure of the sphere arose within his mind. As before, his vision of the sphere was blocked, but now that he knew what to look for, the cloud of darkness took on form and meaning. He saw it for the gaping maw that it truly was, and began to work the ceremony that would serve as a magical emetic.
Unlike his previous attempts, we was not trying to add chelar to the sphere, he was attempting to pull it out. Instead of trying to push the door open, he pulled at it. The effect of the Great Transfer was nothing less than spectacular. In his mind, Alex saw the door begin to open, and then tear free. A fountain of chelar began to cascade loose. Panic almost overcame him, but his planning spared his from total annihilation. The inscriptions around the testing sphere performed as that were crafted to do. Decades of accumulated power coursed back to its many sources. As Alex had guessed, the sphere’s power had come only in part from Balock’s exploitation of his apprentices.
Thunder boomed in the sky above as the rains came in torrents, extinguishing those roofs that had caught fire.
Within the silk‑shrouded confines of her bedchamber, Natalla of Sambour, a noted courtesan of the Street of the Red Lanterns awoke. Tiny flickers of heatless blue flame licked about her body. Her pulse began to quicken as the heat within her loins began to rise. Her eyes flew open as sweat began to bead between her breasts. Her breath came in gasps as the unexpected passion overcame her. Across the city, a dozen other people awoke in the throes of orgasmic pleasure as the tantric magic they had sold to Balock was returned.
The Great Timepiece in Lord Vroet’s Tower lost seven seconds.
Flowers bloomed at random, small animals died, and the courses of people’s lives were changed as the myriad of magical energies was released to fly into the night.
Awakened first by the sharp crackle of escaping energies, and then by the light from the window, Balock snapped from his habitually light sleep and groped for his staff. Pandemonium reigned in the quarters of the Apprentices as they milled about, torn between the instincts of curiosity and self‑preservation. The brilliant flash of blue‑white light caught the attention of the Watch on their rounds across town. At the Guildhall, the Guildmaster winced at the flash of unwarded Greater Wizardry within the town limits. Such magics were very dangerous, and therefore unlawful. The credibility of the entire Guild of Mages would be severely damaged. He squinted out of his tower window. Balock’s school. Balock would answer for this.
Balock’s knuckles turned the color of ivory as he stalked through the corridors of the school. Rounding the last corner, he ground his teeth in rage as he saw the silhouette of his prize student before the brilliant blaze. The interwoven protective circles around the sphere flashed with power, and Alex himself was crowned in a nimbus of his own recovered energy.
“You misbegotten little thief!” roared the wizard. Balock reared back and drew back his staff in preparation for a brutal blow. Alex, his awareness heightened in ways he had never dreamed of, felt the shift in the matrix as his master approached. He panicked and dropped his control over the Transfer and threw up a hand to ward off the impact. Alex grasped the wooden staff as the Sphere released its remaining enchantment in a final mighty burst.
Alex looked into his master’s eyes with shock as he realized what had happened. The Sphere exploded in a gout of orange flame, rocking the flagstones of the courtyard and blasting the few surviving plants to ashes. Protected within the chalk lines, Alex looked on in a mixture of horror and fascination as Balock opened his mouth and began to scream.
It was a mournful cry that started out low and anguished, but quickly rose to the upper registers. The old man threw his head back and screamed as the magic of his being was ripped away. Crow’s feet formed at the corners of his eyes and his eyes became hollowed. His spine twisted as if under a gale wind.
Suddenly, all was silent. Alex swore a low oath as he looked about. Behind him, the hated Sphere of Levitation was a collapsed and withered shell, lying like an empty wineskin. The walls all around were coated with ash and scorch marks. Most striking of all was the withered thing that lay at his feet.
Balock, his purloined power stripped away, was no longer able to maintain the spells that granted him his youth. His staff lost its appearance of dark red wood, and instead was revealed to be a human thighbone, the mark of a Black Necromancer. The young mage walked casually past his limp master and the crush of awed students to the steps to his chamber. There, in defiance of both town and guild law, he took his wand and slipped away into the darkness.
It was nearly an hour before Alex was able to successfully compartmentalize the power that he had absorbed. Some had to be released harmlessly into the air around him, but he was able to cache a large percentage deep within himself. That task behind him, he had to ascertain where he had wandered. He knew his way around the bulk of the city, but in his confusion he had traveled to a section that he had never had cause to visit before. Lord Vroet’s Tower, the steeple of the Temple of the Northern Stars, and the shadows of the Kalrayt Range gave him his bearings, and he headed for the Warrior’s Quarter.
Maledar was not anxious to see him at that hour, and even less pleased to learn that the night’s calamities had been his doing. “Now tell me again,” he said in a pained yet patient way between sips of double‑strong tea, “just what you did.”
“I found out that Balock has, or rather had, a thing in his courtyard covered with the runes of a death‑cult. I tried to inspect it with magic, and suddenly the town lit up.”
The explanation did not satisfy Maledar any better than it had the first time Alex tried it. “You just examined it and the whole city lit up like it was the King’s birthday? Honestly, Alex, I find that hard to swallow. I’m your friend; you should know that by now. I can’t help you if you won’t be honest with me.”
Alex weighed his words carefully. “I’m sorry, Master Maledar, you’re right; I did more than just look it over. My oaths to the Guild of Mages prevent me from detailing exactly what I did. Let me just say that I tried to…well, I guess you could say that I undid the thing’s evil. I didn’t realize just what that would add up to.”
Maledar sat quietly and sipped his tea. Finally he set his mug down. “You know how dangerous it is to tamper with unknown quantities, Alex. Even Balock,” he practically spat the name out, “should have taught you that. If you suspected evil workings, you should have gone to your Guild…” Maledar’s voice trailed off in incomplete thought. He nursed his mug. “You’ll have to leave town. You know that, don’t you?”
Alex had realized it, but he had still not fully admitted it to himself. “Yes.”
Alex stared blankly. “Preferences?”
“Where you want to go. What you want to do.”
Alex considered the possibilities, but could not decide what constituted a realistic goal. “Do you have any suggestions?”
“Dozens, but we don’t have much time to work with. The Guild won’t want you to leave town until the incident has been fully investigated, and that can’t help be dangerous for you. The whole town knows that Balock’s a dangerous man to cross, and you did more than just offend him. You have nothing to gain by waiting for a Guild inquiry.”
“I guess you’re right. I’ll leave town with the first sun.
“I can’t suggest that you travel alone, not with this accursed conscience of mine.” Maledar smiled. “I think that I can at least see to it that you have company while you’re on the road.”
A few hours before sunrise, Heleana and Cirelle arrived, as requested, at Maledar’s school. He met them with cursory civilities, and then spoke his mind. “You must take Alex with you.”
“I would like for you to take him with you to Sardonaxyl. If he’s still alive, he might be able to help the boy.”
“And if we don’t,” Heleana concluded, “you won’t help us find the wizard.” Her analysis was cool and matter‑of‑fact.
All eyes fixed on the old soldier, looking worn but steady in the light of an oil lantern. “Actually, no. I said that I would help you find him, and I will. I’d still like to think that my word is my bond. I’m just making a request.” His lips curled in a half‑smile. “But if you take the boy with you, I’ll be sending a letter of welcome with him that may give you a favorable hearing. With any luck, I can convince Sardonaxyl that he still owes me a few favors.” Alex tried not to let his face betray his emotions. Heleana and Cirelle were not fully awake, and he couldn’t read their expressions. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Kelendora slipping quietly into the room. She was clothed in a plain sleeping‑robe, and leaned against the wall next to the doorframe.
“He’ll be dead weight,” Cirelle said in even tones. She then nodded to Alex, “no offense, lad, but you know it as well as we do.” She made her remarks again to Maledar. “We’ll take him, but you’d better write one hell of a letter. The Gramming Forest is going to give us enough headaches without a child crashing blindly behind us.”
Alex winced reflexively, but felt his heart lift at her consent.
Maledar nodded. “It’s already written, but I’ve sealed it.”
Abruptly, Kelendora stood into the lamplight. “I’m coming along,” she announced with utter certainty.
Cirelle’s head snapped about and she stared, momentarily taken aback. Then she said, “Sorry, dear, we’re not doing any more wet nursing. Find your adventure some other way.”
“I’m a senior Journeyman, and by the Guild rules am suited for duty at half wages. I won’t be `dead weight.’ If the Gramming Forest is as dangerous as all of you seem to think it is, you’re going to need every sword you can get.”
Maledar just shook his head and sighed. “Girl, you’re not ready for gate duty, let alone a trip through he Gramming Forest. I cannot permit it.”
Helenea arched one elegant eyebrow and spoke. “I wish to hire her.”
“You can’t…” said Cirelle.
“I forbid…” said Maledar.
“I accept,” said Kelendora.
“That’s that. You,” Heleana pointed to Cirelle, “hired me to see to your safety. According to our pact, I make all of the military decisions until we return home. I’ve decided that we need an extra sword. Since her pay is coming out of my contract, you have no authority.”
She turned to Maledar; “you are due a return on your training. If you never let he out of your sight, how are you going to get paid?”
“I didn’t really expect to get paid. I’ve no legacy for her to inherit. I barely make the rent on this compound. When her parents died, she was sent to me. So I taught her the only skill I had to pass on.”
“I sympathize, old man,” said Helenea, “but the bargain has been struck between us. By the Mercenaries’ Code, neither of us can honorably break it until she is injured in battle, or we reach our destination. You know that as well as I do.”
Maledar fumed with some unspoken inner struggle. Finally he said, “if I could go with you, I would, but…I have commitments here. I’ll have the quartermaster woken up; help yourself to supplies and weapons. Walk carefully. I’ll be offering sacrifices to Lohesh, the Sovereign of Travelers, until you return.” The old man turned and walked from the room.
Within the first hour, Alex realized that his footwear was not optimally chosen, and he started to wonder when they would see another town. The road was well‑traveled and sloped gradually downward into deeper and deeper woods. Alex’s mind wandered freely as step followed monotonous step. After all, he was the sole male among three woman, and one could never be sure when life might offer the classic “learning experience”. Alex considered the many tavern tales he had heard of a single man and groups of women, and grinned to himself.
A few hours after sunrise and the group gathered for a cold breakfast. Their rations were far from impressive, as Cirelle had insisted on leaving Sonora, their mule, at the school. They only had with them what they could carry. They could not chance the main roads for long given the risk that Balock, or some proxy, would soon be in pursuit. Halfway through breakfast, Helenea suddenly leaned over and gave Alex an open‑handed slap to the face. Alex’s eyes grew wide, and his cheek went bright red. “What the hell was that for?” he asked, his voice breaking.
“Stop staring at my tits.”
“Wha…? I wasn’t..!”
Cirelle and Kelendora broke up with sudden, hearty laughter.
Kelendora chided, “You were, Alex. Honestly, you must learn some manners.” She giggled at him and traded some peculiar gesture with Heleana.
Alex looked hurt but knew better than to try to defend himself. The laughter subsided and Cirelle called a halt and casually unpacked a map. Alex stepped back and stood close the trunks and made a show of examining the white, loose, bark of the parchment trees.
“How are we doing?” asked Heleana.
Cirelle set the vellum map on the ground and put small rocks at each corner. “Two more hours and we get off the road.” She pointed to a general area of green. “We should get to the Dragon’s Reach foothills before the week is out. My big worry is the rain we’ll be getting this afternoon.” As if mystically compelled, they all directed their gazes skyward.
“Doesn’t look like rain,” Kelendora muttered.
“You’ll learn to trust her weather sense,” Heleana stated. Cirelle directed them back to the map. “We’ll be taking this northern route.” Her finger traced a route that had no marked road. “The woods will be old, but the undergrowth wasn’t bad the last time I went through. A deer path should be all we need.”
“Doesn’t that take us by Giant’s Foot Lake?” Alex asked, distracted from his sulk at the mention of the northern route.
“Yea,” Helenea answered, “what of it?”
“There’s something in the Lake.”
“We’ve all heard the stories about the tritons, son,” said Cirelle, “no one’s claimed to have seen a triton in decades. No one sober, anyway.”
“I don’t mean the tritons. My master used to talk about something else. Something big. He never would explain what he meant.”
Heleana rolled her eyes. “Once you’ve been traveling a while, you’ll realize that there are tales about every square span on the map. Monsters, treasures, lost cities…you’ll learn not to take them too seriously. Besides, Balock was holding you a virtual prisoner. He was probably just trying to scare you.”
The first couple of days passed with the mind numbing emptiness of foot travel on the open road. Helenea’s ready spear kept them in fresh meat, in blatant violation of poaching laws, and the combined skills of Cirelle and Helenea kept them out of the way of the few bodies of armed men that they occasionally ran across.
Off of the main roads, Helenea habitually loped ahead of the group by several dozen rods, occasionally springing back to the group to report on what was ahead. The fourth day out from the city, she came sprinting up and sharply ordered everyone off of the road.
“Black Dragons! Everybody move!” The mercenary quickly hustled the small group off into the leafy scrub. It was still early enough in autumn for the thin brush to provide sufficient cover, and the party of mounted men rode by, their horses’ hooves crunching on the fallen pine needles, scarcely glancing in their direction. The riders passed by closely enough for Alex to smell the scent of the crushed evergreen needles.
“Who are they?” Kel asked. Heleana spun about and clamped her hand over the girl’s mouth. Hard. The younger girl narrowed her eyes over the woman’s hand, but fell silent. The mercenary waited until birdsong returned to the forest before replying.
“My opinion of `Captain’ Maledar grows less with each foolish mistake you make. Never speak in the presence of the enemy unless absolutely necessary.” Helenea paused to give Kelendora a chance to consider her words. “The Black Dragons are the King’s own terror troops. His chief life‑taker, Eldrak, formed them at the King’s personal command. They have a white card from Eldrak and the King, and they’re one of the reasons for the Old Rebellion. `There is no infamy to which they will not sink.'” The warrior spat upon the ground. “Enough talk. Let’s move!”
The small group wound its way though the forest as the long afternoon passed. As the shadows began to lengthen Alex noticed that the trees thinned out ahead.
“Whew!” whistled Kelendora as she looked out at the water. “Have we reached the sea already?” Alex winced at his friend’s ignorance, but he had learned to appear wise by saying nothing at all the last few days.
“No,” said Cirelle, “this is Giant’s Foot Lake.”
“By the gods,” said Kelendora, “you can’t see the other side. How big is it?”
Cirelle looked out over the water and into the darkening sky and said, “You can walk for a week along the shore and not see your own footprints. But we don’t have to go all the way around. We go north from here.”
“But that’s for tomorrow,” put in Helenea. “We’ve come far enough for today.” The mercenary indicated a small clearing a few dozen paces away from the lake shore. About ten spans across, it provided ample room for the small group. The grass was soft, and there was a sandy patch at the center that would be ideal for a campfire. “We won’t have any shortage of fresh water, and there should be plenty of game. Let’s set up camp.”
Alex paused as if to say something, then shrugged. Perhaps Balock’s warnings were just so much leash‑cord, like the mercenary had said. As was typically the case, the two warriors slipped off into the woods to seek game while Cirelle went off in search of whatever useful herbs could be found in the area shore. This left the young mage to assemble their camp. He gathered a stack of firewood, spread the tarps, and started the fire, skinning his knuckles on the flint.
The women did not return by the time he had finished his chores, and he looked the camp over, tightening tent cords and coaxing the small fire into an adequate cooking‑fire. Alex looked out across the water, staring at the horizon. It was close to sunset, but the sun had long since vanished behind the flat gray expanse of clouds. The young mage gathered his robes closely about him in the chill wind that sprang up and blew across the lake. The sand beneath his soft leather shoes crunched beneath his weight as he looked about. The heavy pines of the Gramming forest grew almost to the water, leaving room for only a narrow strip of beach. A light rain began to fall. Fragrant smoke rose from the tiny campfire as Alex walked back to the lake to marvel at its size once again.
His interest in the large lake was waning when he noticed that the horizon was darkening. At first he took it to be a storm front, but the other clouds were heading slowly into the darkness. His next suspicion was that Balock had managed a seeker‑sending, a hunting magic. The darkness, however, grew much too quickly; Alex leapt out of the way at the last possible moment. The earth shook around him, and a heaving mass of glistening black flesh landed on the beach in from of him.
The Torg was about the size of a small barn. Jet black, it towered over ten spans in the air. Lake water sheeted off its back to fall back onto the beach’s sands. Alex reacted with the most ancient of sorcerers’ defenses. He ran like a flushed rabbit.
A hairsbreadth behind him, the Torg shifted and brought its full mass down upon the primitive campsite, indifferently crushing the tiny fire. The vast bulk of the beast smashed the packs and sleeping tarps with the same blow. Sandy dirt pelted Alex’s back as he made for the path that led away from the small clearing.
The Torg exuded a blunt limb and dropped it in front the fleeing mage with a sound like crashing thunder. Half‑encircled by the rubbery black flesh, Alex felt faint with panic. He spun to his right and prepared to dive into the brush, but before he could move the unearthly swiftness of the Torg blocked his final avenue of escape with another stubby extrusion of flesh. The Torg began to tighten the ring of flesh that separated Alex from the surrounding wood.
“Climb, you idiot,” came Kelendora’s voice over the wall of flesh.
Alex leapt up as high as he could, scrabbling for any kind of hold. The wet flesh was slick and smooth, but wrinkles in the skin where the thick extrusions bulged from the main body of the creature provided sufficient purchase for him to scramble to freedom.
“I would have thought of it in a moment,” said Alex as they bolted down the path.
“In a moment you would have been dinner,” she replied over the sound of crashing tree trunks.
The two ran down the twisting path into the forest, the sound of the Torg always near. The ground grew rocky and the pair began to slow, having to choose their footing with more care. Soon they came upon a tall outcropping of rock that jutted up from the earth like a misplaced wall. Without warning, the beast appeared before them. Not needing the paths, the giant creature had followed the sound of their flight in a straight line, snapping tree‑trunks and smashing stones as it came. The treacherous turnings of the path had caused it to double back upon itself and bring them face to face with the predator. The Torg stopped and shifted, backing them up against the rock face. It paused as though its eyeless bulk was sizing them up, or possibly savoring its victory. Kelendora drew the longsword from her back and took a determined fighting stance.
Alex calmed himself with a few deep breaths. Kelendora was hacking away at the Torg, but Alex knew how futile her assault was. Worse, it was rolling away a section of its surface to reveal its mouth‑studded underside. Torg poison was a potent paralytic.
“Now we see what magic’s worth,” Alex said to himself as he drew his wand from his sleeve. Alex forced his mind to relax and entered the disciplines. His awareness expanded quickly through the narrow channel of the wand, and he could sense the matrix in front of him. He immediately narrowed his focus, eager to avoid the distraction of Kelendora’s nervous mind. He forced his mind into the body of the beast.
Alex had never seen the matrix of a colony creature before, and this had to be one of the largest colony creatures on the planet. It was the very antithesis of order. The thing had all the structure of a garbage heap behind a tinker’s shop. Interpretation of such complexity was probably beyond even an adept; Alex mentally backed away from it as quickly as he could.
Blindly, Alex used his art in the only way he knew how. He threw all the chelar he could through the tight channel of the wand. It felt as though he had hit a wall at a dead run. The chelar would not move. Pain flooded through his brain and ran along his nerves as his vision faded through a red haze that gradually went black. His last thoughts as the cacophony overwhelmed him were of the limited consolation that the Torg seemed a bit confused.
Kelendora watched aghast as Alex’s eyes rolled up in his head and he slumped to the ground like a sack of manure. “Magic must not be worth very damn much,” she thought as he collapsed. She braced her feet between her fallen comrade and the gargantuan bulk of the predator, prepared to sell her life dearly.
The Torg lurched forward toward its food, then stopped. The black mass shifted from one side to the other, then towered into the air. An unearthly series of howls reverberated from the Water Torg’s underside. The beast spun on its axis and raced back to the lake. The Torg crashed into the trees scattering the boles like jackstraws as it fled, revealing Cirelle, who stood well away from the beast’s path of retreat.
“I can’t leave you children alone for a minute,” the healer said in gently condescending tones.
“What….what did you do?” Kelendora gasped.
“Do I look like I could lift it up and trot off with it? I gave it a dose of wildsage. A big one.”
“But you didn’t…”
“I didn’t kill it, not with wildsage. It’s a desiccant, not a toxin. Torgs are mostly water, even more so than the rest of us. They hate being dried out. Here. Give me a hand with his wizardliness.”